NEW ORLEANS -- For New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, the first four losses of the 2012 season had been an unmitigated disaster. But at least for one night, the future Hall of Famer once again was on top of the NFL world.
Chasing NFL history, Brees threw four touchdown passes, three to Marques Colston, in a 31-24 comeback victory over the Chargers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday night. It marked the 48th consecutive game in which he has thrown a scoring pass - breaking Johnny Unitas' 52-year-old record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
"It's unbelievable," Brees said after visiting briefly with his suspended head coach, Sean Payton, who was allowed by NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell to attend the game and watch history. "Obviously, I felt like this night wouldn't have been the same without him in the building, along with (suspended general manager) Mickey Loomis and (suspended coach) Joe Vitt. To be able to share in the historic moment was special."
Payton watched the drama from Brees' private suite in the Superdome, and he took in a furious second-half comeback. Brees surpassed Unitas late in the first quarter on a 40-yard pass to Devery Henderson, who easily got behind Quentin Jammer on a double move and waltzed into the end zone.
"I was so wide open that I was hoping he saw me," Henderson said. "I knew once he threw it I would catch it. I had that in mind even when the play was called - to be a part of history."
Ironically, Brees said, Henderson wears jersey No. 19 - the same number as Unitas. Unitas' son, Joe Unitas, pointed out that symmetry to Brees after the game.
"The namesake - the guy who held this record for 52 years - is arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game," Brees said. "He was a pioneer of the game. It's a tremendous honor. It's humbling. It's certainly a record that we all very much appreciate."
Brees' streak started on Oct. 18, 2009 in a four-touchdown performance against the New York Giants.
Brees, who finished 29 of 45 for 370 yards, brought the Saints back from a 24-14 deficit early in the second half after Chargers running back Ryan Mathews scored from 13 yards on a sweep around left end.
Brees, who finished 29-of-45 for 370 yards, brought the Saints back from a 24-14 deficit early in the second half after Ryan Mathews scored from 13 yards on a sweep around left end.
The biggest pay of the game came two series later. Linebacker Demorrio Williams intercepted a Brees pass and returned it 26 yards for an apparent San Diego touchdown, which would have put the Chargers up 31-14. But rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Brees, negating the interception and score.
Given the reprieve, Brees caught fire, completing his next three passes for 59 yards, including a 16-yard post to Colston for a touchdown, drawing the Saints within 24-21.
Chargers coach Norv Turner did not dispute the costly call.
"We'll learn from it," Turner said. "They're going to protect quarterbacks, as they should. We have to learn to go about doing our job and doing it properly. That gave them new life."
After the defense forced a punt, Brees took the Saints 90 yards in nine plays to forge a 28-24 lead. Brees was 6-for-6 for 89 yards on the drive. He got the go-ahead score with a five-yard back-shoulder fade to Colston, who was interfered by cornerback Antoine Cason but still held on to the ball.
Brees displayed his toughness. After the roughing penalty against Ingram, Brees completed his next 10 passes for 159 yards and two scores.
Garrett Hartley's 26-yard field with 2:56 left extended the Saints' lead to 31-24.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who completed 27 of 42 for 354 yards and two touchdowns, tried to pull off a comeback drive of his own, but defensive end Martez Wilson stripped Rivers with a blind-side sack with 14 seconds left, forcing a fumble at the Saints' 42 to end the game.
That drive had some controversy. Rivers had completions of 28 and 23 yards wiped out due to a questionable offensive pass interference call on tight end Antonio Gates and a holding call on center Nick Hardwick.
GAME NOTES: During the 48-game streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass, Brees has thrown 118 touchdown passes to 15 different receivers. His most prolific target has been Colston, who has caught 25. ... Mathews responded well to the pressure being applied by Jackie Battle for playing time in the Chargers' backfield. Mathews gashed the Saints on several stretch plays and gained 80 yards on 12 carries and added another 59 yards on six receptions. ... Former Saints receiver Robert Meachem, who signed with San Diego as an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, had been held without a catch in two of the Chargers' first three games, but he broke out with a two-touchdown performance against his former team.